Subtle differences in light make all the difference…
Dioscurides (or workshop), Gemma Augustea, 10-20 A.D., double-layered Arabian onyx. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
The Gemma Augustea is an object of Imperial propaganda, probably owned (if not commissioned by) a member of Caesar Augustus’ family or a close friend (here we mean Octavius, or Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus). The exquisite low-relief sculpture was perhaps created after a military defeat by Germanic tribesmen around 9 A.D. Thus, presenting the emperor as a god, as we’ll see below, would have been highly significant in solidifying his authority despite being vanquished by a powerful enemy.
Let’s break down the narrative one tier at a time.
Dioscurides (or workshop), Gemma Augustea (upper tier), 10-20 A.D., double-layered Arabian onyx. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
In the center sits Dea Roma, the goddess and protectress of Rome, who wears a belt, chiton, and three-crested helmet while holding a shield, spear, and sword.
To her right is Augustus, identified as the god Jupiter through the presence of the eagle beneath his throne. Floating above his head is the symbol of Capricorn, Augustus’ star sign, with an eight pointed star, both of which often appeared on Imperial coinage.
Leaning on the throne (right) and holding a cornucopia is Tellus Italiae, the Roman earth goddess (aka Terra, or Mother Earth). She is accompanied by two small boys, which add to the message of fertility inherent in this figure.
Oceanus, god of the world-ocean, rests his hand on the throne while a personification of the Earth’s inhabitants crowns Augustus. Can you feel the piece oozing with propaganda?
On the left, Victory rides in her chariot accompanied by a spear-bearing male figure, perhaps Tiberius, the step-son and successor of Octavian Augustus.
Dioscurides (or workshop), Gemma Augustea (lower tier), 10-20 A.D., double-layered Arabian onyx. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
The lower register is far more straightforward: prisoners of war are bound (left) or dragged (right) by the Roman army. Perhaps they are Celts or a Germanic tribe (the scorpion on the shield (left) indicates their barbarian status. In any case, the prisoners express grief or despair through their body language and the male figures have been stripped of their armor. Several of the Roman soldiers work together to hoist a victory stele. The standing woman at right holding spears may be Diana, goddess of the hunt, and the male figure with the domed hat might be Mercury, messenger of the gods.
Around 1621, Peter Paul Rubens, the great Flemish Baroque painter, made a drawing after a plaster cast of the piece. Can you spot the subtle changes?
Peter Paul Rubens, Drawing of the Gemma Augustea, c. 1621. St. Annen Museum, Lübeck
Rubens’ son, Albert, wrote a treatise about the gem in 1665 and included the following engraving, which is by its very nature a mirror-image of the object (in this case, the drawing on which he based the engraving).
Alfred Rubens, Engraving after Rubens’ Drawing of the Gemma Augustea from his treatise on the gem, 1665.
For a detailed discussion of the Gemma Augustea, including its conservation history, read here.